The New Normal. Connecting Across Boundaries.

Judy Yi

Judy Yi

By Judy Yi, Director of Education, Trees Atlanta

“This is not normal. This sort of collaboration amongst jurisdictions. This is unique.” Dr. Shawn Gillen, City Manager of Doraville, added, “I want to tip my hat to the mayors.” Dr. Gillen acknowledged the panel of mayors who launched the Peachtree Gateway Partnership, an innovative coalition among Metro Atlanta municipalities for strategic planning and development for their cities. The partnership demonstrates how smaller metro-area cities can work together for the mutual benefit of their region, resulting in more comprehensive greenspace projects.

Mayors John Ernst (Brookhaven), Eric Clarkson (Chamblee), and Denis Shortal (Dunwoody), along with Dr. Gillen representing Mayor Donna Pitman (Doraville), discussed the benefits of their formal partnership at the 2017 Mayors Symposium and Statewide Arbor Day Celebration hosted by Trees Atlanta, Georgia Forestry Commission, and the Georgia Urban Forest Council.

Using tree planting to improve storm water management, mitigate pollution, and lower urban heat island effect can be an effective (and cost-saving) tool for cities, but it requires collective effort. These issues do not stop at city boundaries. What if this collaborative model across city borders could be the new norm?

The first project of the Peachtree Gateway Partnership is a connected trail system through their four cities. Mayor Clarkson, who currently serves as the Chair of the group, reflected upon his inspiration to create the partnership. He said, “[I wanted to] not compete with other entities in the area, but look at the things that unite and bring us together.”

The mayors understood that their interests do not necessarily stop at city limits. Streets nor forests stop at city boundaries. Watersheds and air cross jurisdictions. People are mobile and experience the space around them regardless of city lines.

Mayor Ernst pointed out that cities are in competition for new people and economic development, but through the partnership the “planning helps all of us, and because we tell each other what we’re doing, it challenges us.” The mayors agreed that amenities which enhance connectivity within and across their cities, including connecting to the Atlanta BeltLine and to green spaces and forested areas, increase the desirability of their cities to current and new residents.

The panel of city leaders were pragmatic and included in their comments that the partnership not only improved the quality and effectiveness of various city projects, but it is improving their access to public and private funding, as well as helping to gain community buy-in.

peachtree-partnership-mapIt may seem obvious that a trail system that connects beyond each city’s limits would deliver improved overall benefits, but there are real challenges in coordinating and communicating across jurisdictions. The effort to build a connected trail system lays a foundation for other positive collaborations for the area, including initiatives that work toward protecting our cities’ trees.

Dr. Gillen described the inclusion of greenspace infrastructure in Doraville’s massive redevelopment of the former GM plant along I-285 as an example of ways that development can improve environmental issues by helping to manage storm water and provide shade with tree canopies. Mayor Clarkson noted Chamblee is similarly transitioning from industrial to mixed-used communities. They are planning to leverage trails to connect neighborhoods and improve quality of life. Brookhaven recently announced the purchase of 30 acres of forested land from DeKalb-Peachtree Airport that may be the second largest forested area inside I-285 (second only to Fernbank Forest), according to Mayor Ernst. The popularity of Dunwoody’s tree-filled Brookrun Park is inspiring Mayor Shortal to envision greater “connectivity beyond Dunwoody” to its neighbors. Recently, as part of Trees Atlanta’s Georgia Arbor Day events on February 17, 2017, Trees Atlanta planted trees in each of their cities making it one of our largest single day plantings.

Mayors Symposium

Credit: Atlanta Regional Commission

According to the panel, future partnership initiatives could also include coordinating planning and zoning rules, including updating each city’s tree ordinance. Differences in rules or regulations when crossing city limits can add to the confusion for compliance, but regional understanding of policy best-practices could improve our ability to comply or enforce them. Mayor Clarkson pointed out how new rules can help improve tree infrastructure, such as Chamblee’s requirement that top level of parking decks meet the same landscape requirements as surface lots. Other policies can hinder canopy growth, such as existing billboard rules that prevent trees from being planted near the signs. The panel indicated that the partnership provides a platform for cities to discuss matters like this, as well as an arena for collaboration to better plan and maximize their economic and environmental investments. Dr. Gillen expressed his hope that “instead of making landscape and trees secondary in design, we make it a primary consideration.”

Mayor Shortal’s motivation for joining the partnership reflects our own support for all cities working across borders: “It is to our benefit to get together. We can share our amenities with each other for the enhancement of all our citizens and neighbors. We’re all in this together.”   

We thank Mayors Ernst, Clarkson, and Shortal, and Dr. Gillen for sharing their insightful comments and setting a higher bar for working together to better protect our urban forests for the benefit of our cities and citizens. Additional appreciation to Mayor Ted Terry (Clarkston) who introduced the Mayors Panel, and to John McFarland, Principal at WorkingBuildings, for moderating the panel session. For more discussions such as this, please save the date for Trees Atlanta’s annual Atlanta Canopy Conference, Fri., Sept. 22, 2017.

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2017: The Atlanta BeltLine’s Biggest Year Yet

Rob headshot professional - 2014.07.28By Rob Brawner, Executive Director, Atlanta BeltLine Partnership

2017 promises to be a year of substantial progress for the Atlanta BeltLine.  This is good for Atlanta, as the positive health and economic impacts of the Atlanta BeltLine are indisputable.

Last year, 1.7 million users of the Eastside Trail engaged in regular physical activity – walking to the store, biking to work, jogging, skating, and more – which reduces the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes and improves mental health and weight control, among other benefits.  Meanwhile, $3.7 billion of new development within the Atlanta BeltLine planning area (roughly ½ mile on either side of the corridor) proves the Atlanta BeltLine’s value as an economic catalyst. 

This summer, the Atlanta BeltLine will open in new parts of the city as the Westside Trail and Eastside Trail Extension will add more than four miles of completed trails along the 22-mile loop.  These new trails would not be possible without many preceding years of public-private partnership to fund, design, and construct them.

While important work continues on transit, affordable housing, public art and other components of the project, we have an opportunity now to plant seeds in fertile ground for the remainder of the Atlanta BeltLine trail.  With resounding support from voters and strong leadership from Mayor Reed and City Council, funding is in place through the TSPLOST for Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. to acquire the rest of the 22-mile corridor.

Construction continues on the Westside Trail and Eastside Trail Extension. Both projects are on schedule to be completed later this year.

Construction continues on the Westside Trail (L) and Eastside Trail Extension (R). Both projects are on schedule to be completed later this year.

As remaining pieces of the corridor are purchased, there is an excellent opportunity to activate these sections in the short term as safe, secure interim hiking trails so that people can traverse the Atlanta BeltLine loop while discovering their city and improving their health in the process.

Imagine being able to visit the 45 Atlanta BeltLine communities via paved and unpaved trails within a few years.  It is very possible.  A relatively small investment of nimble philanthropic capital, for example, could ensure the corridor, once acquired, does not lay dormant.  Instead, completed sections of the Atlanta BeltLine would be connected via hiking trails – such as the trail currently connecting Piedmont Park to Ansley Mall – enabling residents and visitors to move around the city in completely new ways.

As additional sections of the corridor are acquired, interim hiking trails like this one near Piedmont Park could be activated for public use in the short term, connecting already completed sections of the Atlanta BeltLine.

As additional sections of the corridor are acquired, interim hiking trails like this one near Piedmont Park could be activated for public use in the short term, connecting already completed sections of the Atlanta BeltLine.

With hiking trails as an interim step, continued public-private partnership is required to complete the fully paved Atlanta BeltLine trail.  We can look to the Westside Trail as a model to follow.

Through Mayor Reed’s leadership, the City of Atlanta was awarded an $18 million TIGER V grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation.  With a lead gift from the James M. Cox Foundation/PATH Foundation, Atlanta’s corporate and philanthropic community contributed $10 million in local match funding through the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership.  An additional $15 million was provided through state and local public contributions.

To complete the remainder of the 22-mile trail loop, we will need similar leadership from our next Mayor and City Council to secure federal and state funding.  We will need continued investments from our philanthropic partners.  We will need the commercial property owners and apartment owners directly benefitting from the Atlanta BeltLine’s development to more directly fund its construction.  And, we will need Atlanta BeltLine, Inc., working with trusted partners like the PATH Foundation and Trees Atlanta, to continue implementing projects on schedule and on budget.

We all play a role in continuing to bring the health and economic benefits of the Atlanta BeltLine to more of the city.  The Atlanta BeltLine Partnership is committed to working with partners, funders, and individuals to support the Atlanta BeltLine project and realize its benefits for all of Atlanta’s residents.  We invite you to join us in making 2017 the biggest year yet for the Atlanta BeltLine.

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The Impact of an Integrated Park System

By Carlos Perez, Co-Chair, Parks & Greenspace Conference; Park Pride board member

Over the last few decades, the idea of thinking about city greenspaces as a system has been taken to a new level, and Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and San Francisco have led the way in demonstrating the benefits of such systems.   Continue reading

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The Future Burns Bright

By LA Allen, Outreach and Volunteer Coordinator, The Nature Conservancy in Georgia

For those of us who work for non-profits, learning to quote our organization’s mission is a first-day-on-the-job task, and after almost two years here, I can say with confidence that the mission of The Nature Conservancy is to protect the lands and waters on which all life depends. Continue reading

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Not So Lonely at the Top: Lessons from a Co-Executive Director

Connie Veates, Co-Executive Director & Chief Operating Officer, Trees Atlanta

Connie Veates

Written by Connie Veates, Co-Executive Director & Chief Operating Officer, Trees Atlanta

Originally Published by Georgia Nonprofit NOW, Fall 2016

Last month, Greg Levine and I celebrated our five-year anniversary as Trees Atlanta Co-Executive Directors. We originally pitched this leadership model to our board of directors while planning the retirement of founding Director Marcia Bansley. It made sense to us: We had known each other for many years, Greg was a long-term Trees Atlanta employee who had run the program side of the organization, and I was a corporate executive who had spent 10 years on the board at Trees Atlanta, including five years as president. Our skills were different, but complementary: Greg has a detailed knowledge of trees and plants, a big vision for protecting our urban environment, and an expansive community network, while I had strong organizational skills, financial acumen, and the drive to accomplish goals.

Understandably, some board members were hesitant. They asked how we would divide our job responsibilities, resolve the disagreements that were bound to arise, and decide who would be the “face” of the organization. We answered their questions deliberately: Our job responsibilities would align with our strengths, meaning Greg would be in charge of programs and I would handle administrative and operational duties; our collaborative nature as individuals and our mutual passion for the mission would lead us to resolve any differences of opinion; and the Trees Atlanta team would present a diversified face to the community, with careful attention to who best represents our position in any given situation.

By all accounts, the model has worked beautifully. We have exceeded our goals in terms of the mission and finances, growing the organization and its impact. As evidence of our success mounts, we’re often asked by donors, sector colleagues, and board members from other organizations if this structure could work well for other nonprofits. The answer, in short: It depends.


Photograph by OldSpeak

To give you a sense of the conditions under which a shared leadership model excels, consider a few of the lessons we’ve learned in our five years as co-directors: Check your ego at the door. Shared leadership between two strong individuals will not work if one person always wants the recognition. (And if both want the spotlight simultaneously, it will become a bloodbath!) We figured out early on that we need to decide who will be in charge publicly and organizationally for particular projects and issues, and work together to enable that person to shine. We realized that leadership is not a single event, but a culmination of many decisions and actions.

Arranged marriages add to the challenges.

There may be some situations where a board wants to appoint two strangers to share leadership, but I don’t think it is an ideal approach. Our relationship has worked in large part because we had already established respect and admiration for each other, and had worked together to fully vet the structure and decide how we thought it would work. In our minds and our actions, we carry out the idea that our success depends entirely on the success of Trees Atlanta. It is never about us, but about the organization.

Value each other’s differences.

I’d be lying if I said that we dance into work every day completely in tune with each other. Greg is a visionary, while I’m all about execution. Sometimes it’s hard to find the common ground, but we don’t give up until we do. We know that we can accomplish more together, so we always try hard to understand and value the other’s point of view.

Two people can accomplish the work of three.

When we first started as co-executive directors, many people remarked that it took two of us to take the place of the original ED. In fact, we have found that two of us can get more done than the sum of us both. Not only can we attend simultaneous meetings separately, doubling our presence, but we are more efficient because we can focus on work that we do best. Also, we don’t postpone work that may be cumbersome for one of us, because typically the other one will find it interesting and keep the momentum going.

Someone’s always got your back.

One of the best perks of shared leadership: You are never alone with your problems. Regardless of who is responsible for a particular issue, we are both ready to jump in and assist. We each work hard to evaluate problems and identify opportunities, but it’s difficult for one person to match the energy and ideas we can generate when discussing things jointly. And on those days that don’t go the way we want them to, there’s always someone you can share a meal with (or a drink!) who can understand your frustrations and help put them in perspective.

Shared leadership may not work for everyone, but with a considerate approach it can work wonders. I am thankful to work with a dedicated partner, and feel rewarded every day to see how our joint efforts make the community a better place. Here’s to the next five years of co-directorship – and to your own thoughtful investigation of the possibilities.

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An Urban Perspective on the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act

Michael Halicki, Executive Director for Park Pride

Michael Halicki, Executive Director for Park Pride

Michael Halicki, Executive Director for Park Pride

Last week, my friend and colleague Thomas Farmer of The Nature Conservancy talked about an effort to create a dedicated source of funding for land conservation, the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act. Park Pride is proud to be a part of a coalition of like-minded organizations advocating for this proposal at the General Assembly as we believe it will have a positive impact both environmentally and economically through our state.     

The Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act would dedicate a portion of the existing tax on outdoor recreation equipment to land conservation projects including urban parks and greenspace. We have seen first-hand the incredible return on investment this could have on our community and our economy. Continue reading

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Advocating for Land Conservation – For Our Economy and the Environment

Thomas Farmer (c) Farmer family

Thomas Farmer (c) Farmer family

By Thomas Farmer, Director of Government Relations, The Nature Conservancy in Georgia

From the mountains to the coast, in city parks and rural fields and pastures, land plays a critical role in Georgia’s economy and quality of life. As the foundation of major industries like tourism, agriculture and forestry, there is no question that land is one of Georgia’s most valuable assets, but it is also a finite resource that must be used wisely. Continue reading

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Our Ten Year Resolution

Trees Atlanta Staff 2016 by Tim Dagraca

Trees Atlanta Staff 2016 by Tim Dagraca

By The Staff of Trees Atlanta

As 2016 comes to a close, Trees Atlanta’s staff is busy planning for the next several years. We yearn to do more and be more effective in all that we do: creating new and improved programming, planting more trees, educating more people, and restoring more woodlands. As we look to the future, we are taking the advice a speaker recently gave to individuals and organizations alike, focusing not only on yearly accomplishments, but what we have built over the last decade. Continue reading

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Affordable Housing – The Challenge and the Opportunity

Deputy Executive Director of the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership, David A. Jackson

Deputy Executive Director of the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership, David A. Jackson

By David A. Jackson, Deputy Executive Director, Atlanta BeltLine Partnership

As the new deputy executive director for the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership, I am excited to join the team whose mission is to Enable the Atlanta BeltLine project and to Engage and Empower the people who live, work and play around it. A fundamental tenet of the Partnership’s Empower strategy is to work with myriad stakeholders – government, philanthropy, business, non-profit, community, and institutional partners – to help strengthen Atlanta BeltLine communities, particularly in the areas of health, housing and economic opportunity. Continue reading

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The Symbols of Our City

Michael Halicki, Executive Director of Park Pride

“our greatest parks often become the very symbols of their cities,
the touchstones of memory and experience for residents and tourists alike.”

 Peter Harnik, the recently retired Director of the Center for City Park Excellence for
The Trust for Public Land Continue reading

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